Often times beautiful design goes wrong when people forget about function.

The functional use of spaces is the bottom line.  No matter how beautiful a space is, if people can’t use it functionally, it is useless. I learned about this first hand when I moved into a beautifully remodeled house that had never been lived in. I found many problems with functional use that were over-looked. For example, in the newly renovated bathroom there was no toilet paper holder installed; linen closets with no handles or knobs; and a shower without a door or curtain rod.  While these things were easy to fix, they showed how the building professionals had forgotten to think about the functional use of the spaces they were creating.

This concept becomes even more important when considering people with health concerns or disabilities who might have functional limitations. A skilled building professional will not only consider the use of the space by an average person, but also by people with a variety of functional impairments. It is not enough that the design problems could be worked around, but that in good design no one should have to work around it. This is the motivation behind movements such as universal design, barrier-free homes, visitable homes, and life-time homes, but also a fundamental principle in creating custom home modifications for people with disabilities. This series simply asks the question of “what could be improved?”  It is not meant to criticize, but to encourage people to think about the functional use of the spaces by real people living in a home.

Today’s photo is from an assisted living apartment space: a narrow stove/oven combination appliance.  It is a fairly standard, basic model electric stove and oven, power with knobs to control each of the 4 burner.  Surrounding the stove is a standard laminate counter-top on wooden cupboards. Today, we are going to focus on the stove top, not the oven component, just to keep things focused.

So, what could be improved?

What would make this hard to use or dangerous given its location in an assisted living facility?

Think of specific function limitations that are common for older adults (and for people of all ages), what would be hard about this design while cooking?

What could make this easier and safer to use for everyone?  

#1. For those with visual impairments, the black knobs on the white background would be easy to see, as are the black burners against a white stove top. There was an attempt to make the print by each knob easier to read by putting it on the angled, upper surface so it can be seen, but the markings and other print on the surface is much too small to be readable.  The orientation of the knobs to which burner they control can also be challenging if you can’t see the visual guide by each knob.  There are 3 red lights, but even I am not sure what they were for exactly, meaning they are not intuitive enough to use, nor can they be easily seen in their locations.

#2. For those with balance problems of difficulty standing, leaning against the stove for support can easily push and turn a knob, activating or deactivating the burner accidentally.  (This design is also hazardous for children who can easily reach and play with knobs located on the front of the oven).

#3. For those with decreased sensation in their hands (such as from diabetic neuropathy or a stroke), the risk of burning oneself is high.  This design is helpful in that you do not have to reach over hot burners to get to the control knobs, but this may be negated by the risks of accidental activation mentioned in #2.  Both electric and gas stoves will inherently pose a risk of burns while cooking.

#4. For those with limited physical abilities having a clear counter space next to the oven top is essential.  This photo does show access to counter-top space at a near equal height to avoid unnecessary lifting. This allows people with limited strength to lift and move pots to a counter-top when done cooking, and then use the counter-top to slide a pot to another location as needed.  The type of counter-top is important for safety.  Laminate counter-tops cannot withstand high heat, so a good, sturdy surface that can withstand heat should be placed next to the stove top.  The alternative is to install a counter-top surface that can withstand high heats, such as granite counter-tops.

#5.  For everyone, ease of use is an essential part of enjoying cooking.  The pans under the burners remove for washing, which is helpful.  There are edges to contain spills around the entire edge of the top as well.


Safer position of the control knobs, but white on white is very hard to see.  Smaller knobs are harder to turn and the digital display and buttons are very challenging for those with visual or motor impairments.

Safest position of control knobs, and most intuitive to use.  Silver on silver is hard to see, but other markers appear easier to read (such as the red and blue dots).  These knobs are easier to turn because the grip is larger.  The grates on this stove are very heavy and bulky, which makes cleaning a challenge.

This example of controls has contrast (silver on black) and an intuitive layout.  Knobs are medium size, hard to turn with limited hand function.  Red print on black is nearly impossible to read.

Other improvement ideas:

  • A variety of methods can be used to make the knobs and markings easier to see on a stove.  Knobs can be wrapped in tape, such as electrical tape, or painted, such as with nail polish or permanent markers.  Settings can be noted with colored tape, sugru, nail polish, puff paint, tactile dots (or door bumpers), permanent markers, or stickers (see image for examples of these ideas).
  • Knobs can be made larger (and easier to turn) by building up the handle part.  Surgu is an adhesive material that could be used (that is safe in heated areas), but electrical tape may also be used to attach an appropriate object to make the handle larger (please use caution and select fire resistant materials).
  • Having a continuous counter-top between a sink area and the stove is very helpful for those with limited ability to lift and carry pots.  A person can fill the pot with water and slide it to the sink, then when done the pot can slide back to the sink for cleaning.
  • Safety- when needed, some knobs can be removed or covered with childproof covers.  The power or gas to the stove can be disconnected or controlled through a specialty switch or key.
  • Induction stove tops can be safer options for those at high risk of burning oneself while cooking or of accidentally leaving on a burner (but they won’t prevent forgetting food on a burner and the potential fire risks and safety risks of this mistake).

So what have I missed?  What other ideas or suggestions do you have?  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.